Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Sixty-Eight Rooms

Every year for Christmas, our girls get a liberal supply of books. They're usually eclipsed by the dolls and toys and clothes for the initial opening time, but when the long, cold winter marches on and the other gifts are forgotten, the books come to life.

This year I gave Lucy a recently published book called The Sixty-Eight Rooms by Marianne Malone. I swear to you, I had the idea for this book myself years ago, but apparently Marianne Malone stopped blogging and got off facebook and actually wrote the thing.

It caught my eye on my amazon recommendations because it's a children's fantasy that takes place in the Thorne Rooms. If you're from Chicago, you know the Rooms. They're miniature recreations of rooms from varying historical periods, housed in the basement of the Art Institute of Chicago. I could write a lot about them, but I'll just shorten it to say: they are Made of Awesome. You can see them online here, but it is nothing to seeing them in person.

The Sixty-Eight Rooms is about two sixth-graders named Jack and Ruthie who discover a magic key that allows them to shrink down to five inches so they can get in the Rooms and investigate. Not only can they check out the contents, when they are in a room they are actually transported back to that time in history as well. In the book, they travel to the 1500s, the time of Christina of Denmark; the 1600s in Massachusetts during the Salem Witch Trials; and the 1700s in Paris, right before the French Revolution.

The book tips its hat to E.L. Konigsburg's From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which, I think pretty much anyone around my age regards as The Precious from childhood, but it's not derivative. Besides the storylines going on in the Rooms, Jack and Ruthie have mysteries they're trying to solve in real life, which eventually become intertwined with their miniature adventures.

The only quibble I have with the book might not even be a problem for a lot of readers. But to me, a lot of time was spent on the logistics--where did the magic originate, but moreso how to enter the museum, how to access the rooms, whether or not the historic figures could see the rooms, etc. Now to me, I grew up on L.M. Boston fantasies or better yet, E.B. White's work. As in, meet the Little family. They have two sons: one is a boy and one is a mouse. Now let's get on with the story. But I am almost always willing to suspend any disbelief, and also, I would believe anything Mr. E.B. White told me.

However, what is one man's floor is another man's ceiling. If you've got a kid who constantly interrupts your reading to ask, "Wait a minute. Now how did they get from here to..." then all of the explanation in The Sixty-Eight Rooms is perfect. Actually, one of my kids IS like that, so there you go.

I thought just Lucy would be interested in this story, since it's billed for ages 8 and up. But I was surprised that Elaine entered in just as much and would beg to hear more every night. There is one part where Jack and Ruthie have to fight off a cockroach, and both girls wanted to look at the picture. When I showed them the two 5-inch children battling the enormous roach, they both started squealing and pulled the covers over their head. But the next day, Elaine kept picking up the book and turning back to see the picture of "that big bug." I am also planning a special trip with our friends Jamie and MaryBeth (they're reading the book, too) to show Lucy the rooms, but as soon as Elaine heard about it she was all in. She will not be left behind.

One night while reading, she interrupted me to ask, "Mama? When we go to visit those Rooms, are we going to be our regular size? Or are we going to get small like Jack and Ruthie?"

After we finished the book, I told them both something really important to me. When you read or hear or see something that touches you or you especially enjoy, if possible, write a letter to the author or creator of it and tell them. They were totally on board with that and couldn't wait to write to Ms. Marianne Malone. We checked her site, and the way to contact her was right there.

First I asked them to tell me their favorite parts.

Here is Lucy's answer: "Ohhhhh. I loved when they read Christina's book and when they met Sophie in Paris and also Thomas and I loved the descriptions of the rooms and that canopy bed and the part about the bento box and going into the Japanese room."

Here is Elaine's answer: "I liked that big bug."

So, here is the letter that they sent:

Dear Ms. Malone,

We just finished reading your book with our mom. We loved it! Our favorite parts were when you described what the rooms looked like and when Jack and Ruthie met Sophie and Monsieur Lesueur in Paris. We also liked when they had to fight the cockroach!

Our mom grew up near Chicago and has been to the Thorne Rooms lots and lots of times. She always wondered if they might have some magic. She is going to take us there soon, so we can see all the things we read about.

Are you going to write any more adventures in the rooms? Will someone find the note in the bento box? We hope so!

Your friends,
Lucy (7)
Elaine (5)

The next day, Ms. Marianne Malone wrote back! They were so excited. Here is her answer:

Dear Lucy and Elaine,

Thank you so much for your email! I love hearing from people who have read my book and enjoyed it. Your favorite parts are some of my favorites, too! Tell your mother that I have met many grown ups who have fond memories of seeing the Thorne Rooms when they were young, and still love them today. I know I do!

There will be a sequel to The Sixty-Eight Rooms and it will be published about a year from now, so you will have to be patient. But it is all about Ruthie and Jack having more adventures in the Rooms. I hope you will enjoy the next one as much as the first.

Have a great time when you go to see the Rooms. The Art Institute is a wonderful museum

Marianne Malone

Is that cool or what? Lucy took the letter to school yesterday, and her teacher had her read it to the class and tell about the book.

Whether you have kids or not, The Sixty-Eight Rooms is a fun read. And if you live anywhere within driving distance of the Thorne Rooms, you should certainly check them out. You never know what might happen!


Laura Brown said...

I love the Thorne Rooms! I spent ages there the last time I visited Chicago. It's really cool that Ms Malone wrote back to your girls, too.

Shannon said...

OHHH! I'm so jealous! I want to go, tooooooo! You're such a great mom, Alice. YOU are the one who makes the books come alive. Have a wonderful time with my dear buddies. At least call me while you're there or something! :)

Melanie said...

That is so completely awesome! I love that your write letters to authors and that now the girls do too. I've often thought of writing a letter to the author after reading a book but I never have. I believe I will now and I'm definitely going to look into that book for Cole & Sophie!
Have a great time at The Rooms - I've never been so now I've got another thing to add to my to-do list.

Jamie said...

Yeah... This is such a fun book. We are really enjoying it. Alice, your girls will never forget receiving that letter! What a great idea!

Alysa said...

i've requested it from our library and can't wait to read it with maddie. maybe we'll meet you at the art institute for a girls' day out! hugs.